This month we saw the release of SPECTRE, the next undoubtedly exciting adventure in the career of fictional superspy James Bond. The film reportedly continues the story of 2012’s critically lauded and enormously successful Skyfall, which grossed over 1.1 billion dollars worldwide. Both films have been set up to delve into Bond’s mysterious past, including the death of his parents, and while SPECTRE promises to shed more light on the (rebooted) film version of the character, it’s important to remember Ian Fleming’s original novels are about a spy thwarting communism throughout the world at the height of the Cold War.
The James Bond of Fleming’s novels was Britain’s—and more importantly the West’s—answer to the threat of an expanding communist empire. However, long before Fleming ever sat down to write the first Bond novel in 1952, Casino Royale, he already had his own experiences with the Soviet Union, including a poignant communist show trial in Moscow at the height of the Stalin Era purges.
Ian Fleming was a complicated man. He came from a wealthy family, was the son of a Tory MP who was killed in action during 1917 in World War I, and attended Eton College, where he excelled in athletics but never in his studies. Eventually being moved out of the college for problems involving owning a car and his inappropriate relationships with women, Fleming attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. After Sandhurst, he worked as a reporter for the Reuters News Agency in 1931.
The trial surrounded engineers from the British electrical engineering company, Metropolitan-Vickers (Metro-Vick), an affiliate of the arms manufacturing Vickers-Armstrong, Ltd. In order to help get Stalin’s Five-Year Plan off the ground, the British company had been allowed to stay in Russia, when most others were driven out of the country, to help with massive electric generators and improvements to Moscow power stations. In 1933, the KGB’s forerunner, the OGPU, suddenly arrested six British engineers and their Russian staff on the charge of sabotage—four of their Moscow power stations had broken down. Later, charges of spying and bribing were attached to the official list.In 1933, a 25-year-old Fleming was given the assignment by Reuters to cover one of Stalin’s most internationally known show trials involving six British engineers accused of spying and sabotage by the USSR. What Fleming saw, he never forgot, and the influence of the sham Soviet judicial system is found throughout the life of his literary creation, James Bond.
Andrew Lycett, in his 1995 biography entitled Ian Fleming, noted that the company had been making reports on the Russian economy and sending them to London— which would be good practice for any company operating within a new regime with no transparency. Lycett has also noted that a possible price-fixing scheme was being run by several international power companies which would hurt the young communist state. However, the Soviet Union wasn’t concerned with justice, but instead wanted to exact revenge against the West for their embarrassing international reports of the government-induced Ukranian famine, Holodomor. The British engineers were the perfect targets for Stalin to show his power. Once news of the arrest reached Britain, the public was outraged. The British Foreign Minister began to pass word to the Kremlin that unless the engineers were released, all trade with Britain would cease.
Fleming was appointed as the foreign correspondent to the trial and boarded a train to Moscow. Once there, he watched as the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky—who later became the USSR’s permanent representative to the United Nations in 1949—shouted at, hectored, and excoriated the engineers and their colleagues for being enemies of the State. The public trial was held in front of around 400 audience members appointed to take part in the show by visibly feigning outrage as the prosecutor made his way through the trial. The judge, Vassili Ulrich, one of the most merciless instruments of Stalin’s terror, offered wry smiles and let the prosecution and the trial drag on for seven long days. The accused Russian staff pled for their lives, but the British were obstinate, claiming their innocence.
As the engineers awaited their trial in the notorious Lubyanka Prison, two of them were forced to sign bogus confessions of guilt. The two who had signed confessions quickly recanted at the trial, and only after the prosecutor took one of them out of the room to let him know that his Russian housekeeper would be executed if he didn’t uphold his confession did he suddenly have a change of heart.
Such was the justice system of the early Soviet Union. Stalin’s trials, following Lenin’s model, had always been the organ of state politics rather than a search for justice. Martin Latsis, the Cheka’s first Deputy Chairman and historian, wrote that “The Cheka (forerunner of the KGB) does not bring the enemy to trial but smites him down….It either destroys him without trial…or it isolates him from society by imprisoning him in a concentration camp.”
Stalin had wanted to show that he had enemies all around him and that only his actions, whatever they were, could save the USSR from total chaos. Felix Dzerzhinsky, Director of the Cheka, OGPU, and GPU, laid out the real reason for the Soviet courts: “Don’t get the idea that I’m looking for a form of revolutionary justice…I need an instrument of revolutionary vengeance on the counter-revolutionaries.”
The engineers were convicted and given lighter sentences, thanks in no small part to Stalin’s realization that severing all trade with Britain would be disastrous. Eventually negotiations between London and Moscow were able to bring the engineers back home to England before any prison time was served.
Fleming wrote an article for the press that lay bare the Soviet oppression and conditions the engineers and Russian people were forced to endure. Writing to the Foreign Office in London, he noted that the communists were a force to be reckoned with: “these tough grey-faced little men…are a vastly different force from the ill-equipped gun fodder of 1914.” Fleming’s profound experience stayed with him for the rest of his life, and it’s probably not a coincidence that in his novel You Only Live Twice, the father of James Bond, Andrew, is mentioned as having been a “foreign representative of the Vickers armaments firm.”
After working in Naval intelligence during World War II, Fleming became a reporter and foreign manager for the company that owned The Sunday Times. Shortly before his wedding, a middle-aged Fleming started to write the first of his James Bond novels from his Jamaican cottage, Goldeneye. One year later, the first of the series, Casino Royale, was published to critical acclaim. The public reaction to Bond was lukewarm, but when US President John F. Kennedy’s list of top ten favorite books was published in Life Magazine in 1961, it included From Russia, With Love, and the rest is history.
The Fleming novels continue to be as entertaining as ever, and as Newsweek’s Edward Platt recently wrote, “it is Fleming’s Bond who still holds our attention.” Although Fleming admitted that he never conceived of Bond as a hero but instead a “a blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, or get out of them one way or another,” the clear motive for Bond was always to stop the Soviet Empire.
In Casino Royale, Fleming introduces readers to his fictional spy by allowing for a dialogue to occur over the reality of the Soviet threat. As Bond lies in the hospital, recovering from the effects of being cruelly tortured, he adopts a relativist attitude toward communism. He tells his friend Mathis,
Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism and we should have been told to go fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.
His friend tries to convince him of the reality of the communist threat, but to no avail. Bond is convinced communism is simply a different form of government that happens to be in opposition to his own, and that the very idea of good and evil is merely a creation of society and governments. He convinces himself to retire from the spy game and to start a new life with his true love and the novel’s femme fatale, Vesper Lynd. However, after she is forced to commit suicide to save Bond from the Soviets hot on his tail, his attitude changes: “How soon Mathis had been proved right and how soon his own little sophistries had been exploded in his face!” He suddenly realizes “the real enemy [the Soviet Union] had been working quietly, coldly, without heroics….” In an instant Bond recoils from his previous relativism and resolves “he would attack the arm that held the whip and the gun…he would go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.” Although Fleming mostly used the Stalin-controlled Soviet military counterintelligence agency SMERSH (from the Russian smert sphionam—death to spies) as his frontline enemy, his goal was always the destruction of the communist machine.
Throughout the novels, Bond fights against Soviet terrorism. In his book Witness, former Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers writes,
The Communist Party, despite occasional pious statements to the contrary, is a terrorist organization. Its disclaimers are for the record. But its record of kidnappings, assassinations, and murders makes the actions of the old Terror Brigade of the Socialist Revolutionary Party look merely romantic.
Fleming has Bond explicitly understand the physical and psychological terror and torture the Soviet agents use in their desire to achieve world domination. At the end of You Only Live Twice, Bond is captured by the KGB and brainwashed. By the beginning of next novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, the brainwashed Bond attempts to murder his boss, friend, and mentor, M, who is already aware of the plot. After deprogramming, Bond asks to go back into the field because his “old fierce hatred of the KGB and all its works had been reborn in him and…all he wanted was to get back at the people who had invaded his brain for their own murderous purposes.”
Another of Fleming’s novels, From Russia, with Love, deals with the widespread use by the Soviet Union of the abhorrent practice called the “honeytrap”—a female spy using sexuality and seduction as a means of gathering information and blackmail. To be sure, the KGB was not the only agency that had ever used sex for spying purposes, but as former Inspector General of the CIA Frederick P. Hitz noted in The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, the Soviet Union used the honeytrap to a far greater extent than the West and were largely successful with it, while the British, French, and American agencies used it far less because “few Western intelligence services could dictate to their nationals that their bodies belonged to the State.” In the novel, Russian spy Tatiana Romanova is told by her Russian handlers that despite her protests, her body belonged exclusively to the State, and her mission was to seduce and blackmail Bond. As she is seducing him, she falls in love and defects to the allies—with Bond promising to get her safely to London. The novel closes with her sleeping soundly at the British Embassy.
The villains found in the novels are often products of the KGB. In Casino Royale, Bond’s target was on the payroll of the KGB before going rogue; in Live and Let Die, Bond’s nemesis is the Haitian-born Mr. Big who defected from America to the Soviet Union and is part of SMERSH; in Man with the Golden Gun, the title character is a Spanish-born Caribbean gunman who is partnered with the KGB and Fidel Castro. Other novels include Soviet villains, and while it would be easy to point to this as simply Fleming’s desire to be relevant to his own time, his motive behind creating SPECTRE proves otherwise.
An interviewer for Playboy Magazine in 1964 asked Fleming why he switched from SMERSH and the Soviet Union to the non-ideological terrorist organization SPECTRE as Bond’s enemy in several novels. Fleming answered, “I was writing at the time of the proposed summit meeting—I thought well, it’s not good going on if we’re going to make friends with the Russians.” However, he warned, “if they go on squeezing cyanide pistols in people’s faces, I may have to make them cosa mia again.” While SPECTRE might have been a fictional device for Fleming, he knew the Soviet Union was real enough. Apparently, by the time The Man with the Golden Gun was written, his ire had boiled up again against the Soviet Union. Fleming has M telling Bond: “If the Russians are so keen on peace, what do they need the KGB for? At the last estimate, that was about one hundred thousand men and women ‘making war’ as you call it against us and other countries.”
By the time Fleming began writing his novels, the USSR had become a major world threat that continued to swallow up nations and showed no signs of stopping. Many, including Chambers, thought the West had already lost the war. However, for Fleming, Britain and the West were still worth fighting for, as Bond points out to his Japanese colleague Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice:Fleming understood that the Soviet Union was enamored with the concept of world domination. To get a feel for the intentions of international communism, look no further than the State Emblem which features a hammer and sickle laid over the world with the motto “Workers of the World, Unite!” in 15 different languages. Approaching the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had used the conference at Yalta to solidify territorial gains in Europe. It brutally subjugated the nations of Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Eastern Germany, and other Eastern European nations. It was forced to erect the Berlin Wall in 1961 to lock fleeing citizens into the USSR in the face of overwhelming and continual mass emigration in the postwar period. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union had began infiltrating developing countries, and under Kruschev had begun to use, as former KGB operative Vasili Mitrokhin wrote, “national liberation movements and the forces of anti-imperialism in an aggressive new grand strategy” against the United States and the West. The West had been caught completely off-guard, and as the allied powers tried to unite around a plan to contain the threat, the KGB scored victories around the world. As Karen N. Brutents of the Soviet Central Committee International Department said, “The world was going our way.”
England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of World Wars…but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes…there’s nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them.
Bond represents the individual spirit that is cultivated by the West against the communist idea of the regnant collective. Under communism, individuals were reduced to a product of their time and place on the continuum of material progress. In a study published in 1964 entitled “The Soviet Conception of Man,” professor Richard T. DeGeorge writes, “Under the Soviet view, there is no eternal essence or common nature which each individual man in the past, present, and future shares or has.” Instead, the Soviet conception of the individual is that it is created and exists only by and through the state and society. Any conception of individuality arises as a product of “self-consciousness on the part of the exploiting minority who were separated from and stood above the masses.” Thus, the only way an individual was able to change the world was to properly and completely submit to the State—which was embodied by the Party. In The Opium of the Intellectuals, Raymond Aron notes: “the aspiring communist gives his allegiance to the Party because the Party represents the class which has been elected to the role of collective saviour.”
An individual like Bond who thwarted communist schemes and plots without the Party or the collective was Fleming’s answer to Marx. As Bond demonstrated, an individual could accomplish great things and change—or save—the world. Of particular interest is that Bond describes himself as being deep down a “Scottish peasant” in The Man with the Golden Gun. A peasant, according to Soviet logic, was part of the anointed class and as such, Bond should have sympathized with communist doctrine. Instead, Fleming had him smash it wherever he found it.
Before the movies had Bond chasing international crime syndicates and henchmen with elaborate schemes for world domination, the novels had him hunting down the very real threat of communism across the globe. It’s obvious that both Fleming and Bond were committed to destroying communism and its “cruel machine” of spies and saboteurs, and although the KGB and Soviet Union are no longer threats, communism still exists and oppresses millions throughout the world. With the release of each new film, the world should never forget the lessons from Fleming’s original cold warrior who fought to save the world from tyranny and oppression. For Fleming, one person could change the world, and Bond has always been the fictionalized personification of those who were changing it one covert battle at a time.